Ralph Steadman recalls ‘decadent, depraved’ Kentucky Derby trip with Hunter Thompson
From his desk in his Woody Creek, Colorado, home almost 50 years ago, Hunter S. Thompson poured a growing well of self-doubt and frustration into a long, meandering letter to his editor at Random House books. He was stuck, he said, writing in circles and struggling to deliver a promised opus on the death of the American Dream that now was overdue but barely half-done.
“I’m beginning to think the situation is really pretty bad,” Thompson confided, adding, “Maybe – with a touch of inordinate luck – I can find a narrative opening sometime soon and break out of this terrible bind.”
He would figure it out over the course of two eventful trips up Interstate 15 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. …”
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” never slowed down from those famously manic first lines. The story, a conflation of fact and fiction drawn from the two road trips Thompson made some two months apart with attorney, activist, and fellow substance abuser Oscar Zeta Acosta, was outrageous in both style and substance. It was an eye poke to an America of excesses.
And it was an immediate and enduring success. First appearing in two parts in Rolling Stone magazine in November 1971, published as a book the following year and adapted into a 1998 film starring Johnny Depp, “Fear and Loathing” became Thompson’s seminal work.
Many, like Tim Denevi, latch onto its relevance in these times.
Denevi, a George Washington University assistant professor, is the latest in a series of Thompson biographers, releasing the exhaustively researched “Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism” late last year. It makes the case that, in his prime in the 1960s and ’70s, Thompson was far more than the railing, drug-addled Raoul Duke caricature he drew of himself in “Fear and Loathing.”
The father of gonzo journalism worked tirelessly to hold ethically challenged powermongers like Richard Nixon accountable, Denevi says. In his late 20s and 30s, he maintains, Thompson produced some of the sharpest and most prescient political writing in our country’s history.
“If you were living in the context of Nixon and reading Fear and Loathing in 1971, I think it probably was apparent that this was not simply a hedonistic, hallucinatory road trip through the American West. It was, in fact, an indictment of everything America was supposed to be and never could quite rise to be,” Denevi says.
“I think its political message is as relevant as ever.”
Imagine for a moment that a contemptuous, unbridled and unsparing Thompson was coming of age today, sizing up a society torn by its differences and a political system gone all scorched earth. Imagine him somehow wangling a seat across from a president who doesn’t merely court confrontation but thrives on it.
“I like to picture him on Air Force One or in the Rose Garden, where Donald Trump is so cagey … see him in person with Trump,” says Denevi, who’d like Thompson’s odds in such an encounter.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – the culmination of that seemingly cursed effort to deconstruct the American Dream – arose from a 1971 assignment to Thompson from Sports Illustrated. The magazine simply wanted him to attend an off-road motorcycle race, the Mint 400, in Las Vegas and write a 250-word photo caption. What Thompson turned in was 100 times longer and summarily rejected.
The piece made its way to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, who sent Thompson back to Vegas to add material from his and Acosta’s experiences at (heh heh) the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Thompson ran with it.
His Las Vegas was a cesspool of decadence and greed, a microcosm of a country led into that abyss by a wayward government.
Thompson’s story of derangement was perfectly complemented in Rolling Stone by the exquisitely grotesque, ink-splattered illustrations of British artist Ralph Steadman, who’d first connected with Thompson for a Scanlan’s Monthly spread on the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Their friendship and collaboration would last more than 30 years, until Thompson’s death in 2005.
Steadman remembers starting on the “Fear and Loathing” illustrations after receiving a manuscript of the story and a photo of Acosta. As he recalls, he needed just five days to finish and ship the drawings to America.
Several of those images are among more than 100 of Steadman’s original works featured in a retrospective exhibit at the Kansas City Central Library. It runs through early September – another evocation of Thompson’s work.
“Hunter has a certain turn of phrase, a way of speaking, that’s very graphic. And that impressed me a lot,” Steadman says.
“Something clicked with us. We actually were going to cover everything in America. We were going to go along the Silk Road (trade route), but we never got around to that.”
Thompson was at his typewriter when he shot himself to death in February 2005. He was 67.
“We need him. We need somebody to show how people with the most power are silencing and hurting those with the least power,” says Denevi, whose research for “Freak Kingdom” included a top-down convertible drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to get a sense of Thompson and Acosta’s trips those many years earlier. “Las Vegas was such an exaggerated version of America (in 1971), and now it’s as if America has an exaggerated version of itself in Washington.”
Give him the Thompson of the ’60s and ’70s, however, and not some Twitter-fied version. “Maybe it would have been positive,” Denevi says. “But he was never a man who was his best at 250 characters. He was his best at 90,000 words.”
“Fear and Loathing” came in at around 54,000. It was plenty.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the club
▪ The book discussion: The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” by Hunter S. Thompson at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 14, at the downtown Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
▪ The exhibit: This discussion is in conjunction with a three-month exhibition, “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective,” running through Sept. 8 at the Central Library. Among more than 100 of Steadman’s original works are several of his distinctive illustrations for “Fear and Loathing.” See kclibrary.org.
▪ The expert visit: Tim Denevi, a George Washington University assistant professor, will discuss his book “Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism” on Aug. 21 at the Central Library.
From Part 2, Chapter 3, of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” by Hunter S. Thompson, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine and later in book form by Random House (now Penguin Random House).
“I gave my bag to the boy who scurried up, and told him to bring a quart of Wild Turkey and two fifths of Bacardi Anejo with a night’s worth of ice.
“Our room was in one of the farthest wings of the Flamingo. The place is far more than a hotel: It is a sort of huge underfinanced Playboy Club in the middle of the desert. Something like nine separate wings, with interconnecting causeways and pools – a vast complex, sliced up by a maze of car-ramps and driveways. It took me about twenty minutes to wander from the desk to the distant wing we’d been assigned to.
“My idea was to get into the room, accept the booze and baggage delivery, then smoke my last big chunk of Singapore Grey while watching Walter Cronkite and waiting for my attorney to arrive. I needed this break, this moment of peace and refuge, before we did the Drug Conference. It was going to be quite a different thing from the Mint 400. That had been an observer gig, but this one would need participation – and a very special stance: At the Mint 400 we were dealing with an essentially simpatico crowd, and if our behavior was gross and outrageous … well, it was only a matter of degree.
“But this time our very presence would be an outrage. We would be attending the conference under false pretenses and dealing, from the start, with a crowd that was convened for the stated purpose of putting people like us in jail. We were the Menace – not in disguise, but stone-obvious drug abusers, with a flagrantly cranked-up act that we intended to push all the way to the limit … not to prove any final, sociological point, and not even as a conscious mockery: It was mainly a matter of life-style, a sense of obligation and even duty. If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference, we felt the drug culture should be represented.
“Beyond that, I’d been out of my head for so long now, that a gig like this seemed perfectly logical. Considering the circumstances, I felt totally meshed with my karma.”